In a diplomatic struggle with the UN to define global justice, the Bush administration lost a key battle on Wednesday. It was forced to end its effort to keep American soldiers and businesspeople from possibly facing prosecution at the new International Criminal Court (ICC).
The loss means the US will be reluctant to commit forces to international missions out of concern that someday an anti-US prosecutor at the ICC might go after Americans on such charges as war crimes, genocide - and something the ICC vaguely calls "crimes of aggression."
The ICC began work in 2002 as a permanent way for the UN to try those who commit or support systemic atrocities, rather than use ad hoc courts such as those set up to try former officials in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The US and, indeed, a majority of nations, have not joined the ICC, though many of its allies belong. The US, as the superpower that's often asked to intervene in other nations, sought an exemption. The UN Security Council granted it for two years. The US used the time to persuade 90 nations to sign agreements not to hand over US soldiers to the ICC. But then the Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted. The US saw it could not get another exemption.
The US has cause to worry. There's a possibility that if the ICC thinks the US hasn't adequately prosecuted soldiers responsible for the Abu Ghraib abuses, one of those soldiers could be handed over to the court if he or she happens to visit an ICC nation, such as France.
Other US concerns are well founded. Over 100 of the complaints filed before the court are against Americans. And the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, wants to go after corporate officials who do any business with nations that have committed mass atrocities. In addition, Mr. Ocampo has already made a political mistake by appearing with Uganda's president, whose own Army could possibly be prosecuted for abuses.
US wariness of the ICC is justified until the court can prove itself apolitical.